Public Agenda (Accra)

29 June 2012

Ghana: Revenge of the Liberal Arts Degree

opinion

The brilliant students were usually selected and sometimes even forced to go into the sciences. They would be doctors and engineers and pilots after graduation. At worst they could be architects or draughtsmen. The science student was often the toast of the student population, and some fickle-minded girls (not in Legon though) found it romantically strategic to befriend a would-be doctor than settle for the winding, hazy-mapped academic journey of the Philosophy graduate. They didn't have a definite career destination after graduation. Would they be philosophers, sociologists or anthropologists? It was even said apart from gynaecologists, other professions that ended with the suffix 'logist', particularly those in the liberal arts, were not quite worth the fret and the weariness that many academic enterprises demand of the human soul. That also meant that a zoologist, an epidemiologist or an entomologist had brighter prospects than the Archaeology or Master of Fine Arts graduate from a good university.

Those who couldn't make the science grade found adequate compensation in finance and accountancy. An accountant had juicier job prospects than the classical history and civilisation degree graduate. While they may be civilised, even if classically, the employment market is too topsy-turvy and dynamic for professionals whose only advantages are civility and sincere smiles. Those who have made great strides in the world of work are often ruthlessly malleable and dangerously well-connected. They know how to work the figures and get round protocols to land the juiciest procurement contracts. Employment these days involve spinning, lobbying, strategic manipulation and sometimes naked and bleeding lies by those who are unashamed to be called opportunists and job hoppers. They are often thought of as aggressive goal-getters and ambitious career builders.

Law is the heaven of the liberal arts graduate. Well, that was when the legal profession was as honourable as the Okudzetos and Isaac Adjei-Mensahs of the learned trade made us proud. These days law seems to be everybody's heaven, too, and many a professional wanderer has made it a haven indeed, experimenting with other professional interests before trying their tired brains at such a noble enterprise. No wonder lawyers nowadays are just as good as Ahenfie Police, checking out millions to not-so smart businessmen without contracts. And with newly accredited private universities dishing out law degrees to many a simpleton, the learned profession may soon join the league of fun degrees, and the word counsel may only be as good as a pencil.

When you couldn't make the law grade at our traditional universities, you joined the chockablock lectures of the liberal arts discipline (the trivium and the Quadrivium subjects). They were those who frequented the registry to change their courses. And often all they wanted was to swap one pure liberal arts subject with anything that could be thought of as a vocation (Wikipedia defines liberal arts as matters not relating to the professional, vocational or technical curricula). When they didn't succeed, they settled for Linguistics and Swahili. They would eventually major in the former because Tanzania is the last place they want to survive. What is the future of the Linguistics major, many unlettered and sometimes some professor parents have asked their wards? You were lucky when your parents were not university lettered, because they were just thrilled at the prospect of making a graduate out of their native son. What you studied didn't matter.

In the world of work, however, it matters what you spend money to study for four years in a university. For a very long time, the liberal arts graduate had merely been considered and sometimes tolerated to take up positions in industry. They would quickly try their hands at industry professional courses to justify their employment and solidify their positions. They thronged employment centres in their multitudes for jobs that were only good for those who had analytical and arithmetic skills. Their CVs would usually emphasise transferable skills instead of real technical know-how. Employers are interested in their bottom line; they don't have the luxury to dig to the bottom of their human resource pool to fetch the liberal arts graduate.

Well, that was then. A recent study of 225 employers by the Millennial Branding and Experience Inc. in the USA found out "Thirty percent of surveyed employers said they were recruiting liberal arts types, second only to the 34 percent who said they were going after engineering and computer information systems majors. Trailing were finance and accounting majors, as only 18 percent of employers said they were recruiting targets." According to founder Dan Schawbel, "The No. 1 skill that employers are looking for are communication skills and liberal arts students who take classes in writing and speaking need to become good communicators in order to graduate with a liberal arts degree. Companies are looking for soft skills over hard skills now because hard skills can be learned, while soft skills need to be developed." With some entrepreneurial ability, the liberal arts graduate is hot and competitive to succeed in many professional callings.

In Ghana fine examples of liberal arts graduates at the top of their game in industry abound. The present human resource manager of a big player in the telecoms market holds a degree in English from University of Ghana. Another, a personal friend, is doing a great job at the managerial heights of a multinational oil concern in Nigeria. He holds a combined degree in Religions and Political Science. He has written series of books for oil and gas degree graduates to better their knowledge in the field. The banking industry is probably the biggest benefactor of the rich, versatile experience of the liberal arts graduate. Many Theatre Arts majors who worked well at entry customer service and marketing positions are today managing professionals in some popular banks. And if Pharmacy is all science and drugs, a Mrs Christie Awuah, an English major from University of Ghana, is today one of Kings University's most important pharmacy graduates, excelling in her trade in London.

The liberal arts discipline schools its disciples in critical thinking and problem analysis methodologies that are structured to develop the leadership potential of the arts person. While most of the modules may not be arithmetic in nature, they often require some mental calculation and follow laid down rules and principles to arrive at conclusions. In the end, the liberal arts graduate may have traversed different knowledge fields to afford him a broader understanding of the world around him. They do make better organisational leaders than accountants, doctors and civil engineers. Patrick Awuah, former Microsoft employee and President of Ashesi University, puts it even more poignantly that a liberal arts education is critical to forming true leaders. He had seen the annual revenue of Microsoft grow larger than the GDP of Ghana. It is down to poor leadership. He wants a liberal arts college in every country in Africa. Awuah holds a bachelors degree in Engineering and Economics from Swathmore and an MBA from California.

Still, the liberal arts graduate faces a lot of challenges and would usually suffer the 'relevant course' discrimination in competitive employment. The Millennial Branding survey also found that while 29% of employers were prepared to absorb any graduate who had entrepreneurial experience, 69% insisted that relevant courses would determine a candidate's suitability. To weed out their many numbers, employers are quick to play down the relevance of the liberal arts courses to roles on the field of work. It is not surprising that no liberal arts person made the list of ten richest people in Ghana. They may have been too liberal with their money while immersing themselves in fat books on poetry, instead of joining Sam Jonah to dig gold.

The writer is a Ghanaian born journalist living in Ottawa, Canada.

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